When Phillip Salem closed Owen, his boutique in New York's Meatpacking District, in July, it was a bittersweet experience. "This is such a new beginning," he said Thursday morning at the Soho House, where he hosted a preview for his handbag line, also called Owen. "Everything happens for a reason. I hate when people tell me that but it really is true."
Owen's closure was forced by the landlord's decision to demolish and rebuild the building on Washington Street, where real estate prices have increased since Salem first leased the space three years ago — thanks in part to the new Whitney Museum. "Everywhere I'm looking right now for the rents, it just doesn't make sense," he said, adding that he still plans to find a way to reopen the boutique in the near future. "Paying a rent that's $400 or $500 a square foot in the Meatpacking or Soho or Upper East Side is just not a viable option right now."
For now, Salem is focusing on bags, which he first launched exclusively for his boutique in the spring. "Without [the store], I would have never met so many people — I didn't have the clients, I didn't have the name recognition," he said. "It gave me the firsthand experience to really listen to what the client was wanting."
Salem was only 25 years old when he opened Owen, which carried then-unknown designers like Jonathan Simkhai and Tanya Taylor, and he said running it required constant attention. "I always said that I was [everything from] the cleaning lady to the international buyer," he said. But in the three years that the store was open, he saw his customers change as the neighborhood changed, and struggled to compete with department stores. "My space was only so big, it wasn't conducive to carrying more than 12 lines...The seasons are changing so quick now," he said. "It's just the continuing cycle of new merchandise coming and it's already marked down at the department stores so it's hard to make money." He said that if a customer saw one of his pieces was on sale at a department store, he had to honor that same discount. "You have to react to what they are doing because the people now are very smart, they're on their phones."
Salem launched his handbag line because he saw a gap in the advanced contemporary young designer market (where brands like Edie Parker, Sophie Hulme and Les Petits Joueurs also sit) for a wearable but statement-making bag. "I kept finding that these designers were everywhere in every store but I thought, 'What about for the boutique market or the lady that's shopping in the department stores, that wants something a bit more new?'" he said.
The Owen bags all feature a striking art deco-inspired handle and optional cross-body strap. "Whenever anybody carries one, I want someone to turn around and say, 'I need to have that bag,'" said Salem. "Just walking down the street with your pinky on the bag — like I'm amazing, I'm hot shit, I'm carrying my bag on my pinky and it's gold," he added, laughing. The line's different styles are named after "the leading ladies in my life," including Salem's late mother, Eva, his cousin Noelle and his best friend Emma. The current collection, which is available for pre-order at OwenNYC.com, with some exclusive styles at Moda Operandi, is priced between $850 and $1,295. Next season, he will introduce mini versions with chain straps priced between $500 and $800.
When asked if he'd consider opening Owen as an online-only boutique, Salem hesitated. "I think people meeting me and actually the aesthetic of the clothes that I curated was very important to get where I am today," he said, adding that several e-commerce boutiques have started offering open houses for clients to try on their inventory. "It's a bit more exclusive and intimate and private, so you have to make an appointment. I've definitely established that client base so I don't want to lose that, but I hope that they'll buy the bags right now."